By Joshua Specht
For many competitors in open tournaments, their pregame routine consists of sleeping as late as possible before hopping out of bed, racing to the hotel lobby to check pairings and snagging a complimentary stale donut before sliding into their seat before the start of the game. I used this strategy, with mixed results, for years, before deciding that I needed more of a warm-up to survive the grueling two four- to six-hour rounds per day popular in American Open tournaments. Before going on to my warm-up routine, here are some general points about how to prepare for a chess game:
Give yourself time to wake up.
I've played in many tournaments where I've woken up within minutes of the start of the round. The usual result is that I groggily stumble into the playing room, having lost valuable time on the clock. Worse yet, it takes me another 20-30 minutes before I'm calculating clearly. In the past, this had led to opening catastrophe. A much better idea is to wake up at least an hour before the round, allowing time for a shower/breakfast and at least half an hour for some sort of chess warm-up. Also, try to get enough sleep. I rarely follow this rule, but I perform much better the mornings I chose to go to sleep early the night before rather than staying up until 3 a.m. drinking pints of Guinness and playing blitz.
Avoid Caffeine, Excessive sugar intake, and Huge Meals
For me at least, consuming caffeine before a round is bad news. It works for a while, but somewhere around hour 3 or move 30, I start to crash. If you absolutely need that cup of coffee to get started in the morning, at least drink it in moderation and throughout the game. That way you'll crash after the round, not 27 moves into the Sveshnikov. Also, it's generally a bad idea to eat a whole lot right before a game. If you've never experienced food coma, eat half a large pizza fifteen minutes before your round and see how you feel half an hour later.
My Chess Warm-Up Routine
Now before I start to sound too much like your mother, I'll move on to the warm-up routine. These exercises will prime your brain for calculating variations. Since you're going to spend the entire game calculating, it helps to warm-up. It's like stretching before a marathon, which by the way, is also relaxing to do before a chess game. This routine takes about 30 minutes and since I've started using it, has led to a dramatic improvement in my results, especially in morning tournament rounds.
Start with roughly ten to fifteen minutes of visualization exercises. These are meant to prepare yourself for calculation. Also, when you do these, DO NOT use a chessboard. It defeats the purpose. The first exercise is to choose a square and, without looking at the board, identify its color. This is easiest with a partner. Have him or her call out various squares, like c4 or d1, and then say whether it's a dark or light square. Or to do this exercise alone, make a list of ten squares and write down their color. You can then check with a board to see how you did. This might seem silly, but it works, I promise.
After roughly five minutes, or once you're getting every square, move on to the next, slightly harder exercise. Choose any square on the board and imagine there's a knight sitting there. Then identify all the squares to which the knight can move. Once you're done with that, start picking two squares, a1 and d1 for example, and try to visualize the fast route a knight could take between the two squares. In this case the solution would be a1-c2-e3-d1. Do this exercise for another five minutes or so.
Now we're ready to move on to the important part: tactics problems. Grab your tactics workbook, something any improving chess player should always have handy, and just solve problems for the next fifteen minutes. Not only will solving these kinds of problems prepare you for calculating during the game, but they might inspire you or spark your creativity.
That's it for my warm-up routine. It's pretty simple, and it works really well. If you have any comments, questions, or want to share your own routine, post in the forum discussion thread about this article or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org